Wednesday, July 6

Chatroom – Altrincham Garrick Playhouse

What would you imagine to be on the agenda for teenagers chatting online? Rating current romantic crushes? How mean mum and dad are for not letting them out past 10? 

Whether the fat German kid would be more likely to win Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory over Charlie Bucket might not feature on your list, but it is the first vignette of conversation we’re presented with as we join our six teen stars of Enda Walsh’s one-act play Chatroom.

Described as a chilling, blackly comic tale, Chatroom looks at themes of online manipulation, cyberbullying and teenage depression, as relatively innocent conversations dissecting children’s literature and pop music are punctured by the arrival of Jim, a young man struggling with suicidal thoughts.

This show marks the first production by the Garrick’s newly-formed, in-house ensemble which aims to give aspiring 18 – 30 year old actors from Greater Manchester the opportunity to deliver one show a year as part of the Garrick’s wider season. The cast consisted of Elyas Meekcoms (Jim), Olivia Brindley (Laura), Luke Robinson (William), Lizzie Lomas (Eva), Luke Bicknell (Jack) and Holly Gibson (Emily).

Given the sensitive subject matter of the play, director Joseph Meighan has been blessed with a very strong and talented cast, with the young actors showing a maturity and artistic skill beyond their years. 

Aided by a smart set, and lighting design from James Merrington that highlights the sense of isolation, and clever touches with props (one teen swigs Red Bull, another, Capri Sun), each performer creates a distinctive character and there isn’t a weak link among them as they either seek to either goad or support Jim through his depression. 

It is exceptionally done and, in an age where youth mental health has been badly impacted by the pandemic, is a timely reflection of the dangers of isolation and peer influence, both good and bad.

If anything lets this show down just a bit, it’s the musical interludes where, instead of snippets of music, we have entire pop songs that start to drag and risk killing the pace of the piece, especially as the accompanying movement is very repetitive.  

Also, despite some of the cultural references being updated, this does feel like a play of when it was written (early 2000s). Chatrooms have given way to social media and the absence of this from the script lessens the sense of timelessness. If Walsh were to revisit his script for the post-coronavirus age it could give the show a whole new potency. 

Nevertheless, the strength of performances still allows us to follow along a sadly familiar path where angst and insecurity can lead to cruelty, despite cries of ‘Be Kind’ from the well meaning, building to a palpably tense ‘will he, wont he’ finale.

The cast and crew are to be commended for delivering a powerful reminder of how easy it can be to fall prey to faceless internet trolls, whilst providing a thread of hope that there are also those willing to listen when we are at our most vulnerable.

If you or someone you know is struggling with any of the issues raised in this play please visit papyrus-uk.org for further advice and support.

Reviewer: Lou Steggals

Reviewed: 19th July 2021

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★

Photographs: Martin Ogden

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